White-water Rafting in Chiang Mai – Northern Thailand

We’d come donw from the hippie town of Pai. After days of heavy rains and stormy conditions, the weather finally breaks and the intense sun can be felt once again. We're travelling in a Landrover alongside the Mae Tang River, fighting through deep ruts and muddy conditions that were caused by a storm. The gorge to our left drops away dramatically and we finally get out first glimpse of the raging waters. I'm hoping my partner, who was reluctant to come on the trip, won't be deterred by the sight of the ferocious river.

Jason, our guide, thankfully reassures us that he never rafts an angry river. He stops and points to some rocks by the river's edge. “See this boulder here”, he points out, “when this is above the water level, it’s safe to raft this river”. The rain from the recent typhoon has inundated the valley and there is forest debris strewn all along the river banks. We weren’t sure whether to raft here or in Pai. Fortunately, he is internationally trained and qualified in water rescue so we take his word for it.

We reach our camp at the charming village of Sop Kai, where the river is slower due to the flat nature of the land. The jungle birds are singing, the water is glistening and everybody is in a more jovial mood. We are given some coffee and snacks and left to relax for a while in this peaceful, sleepy community. Few tourists make it here to enjoy the wonderful scenery. His camp was much like the laid back atmosphere in Pai a few days back.

Before we get too comfortable, we are kitted out with paddles, helmets and buoyancy aids. We are given a comprehensive safety briefing, and told that the guides will be in control of the rafts and that we must follow their orders. We practice our strokes on a quiet section of the river. “Forward paddle! Back paddle! Lean left! Right! Get down!” he screams as we try our best to appear competent.

Our minds are put at ease when some of the staff are dispatched to the more dangerous parts of the river, in anticipation of the raft capsizing. We also have kayakers that will stay with us to rescue anyone who falls in.

Before we knew it, the guides launch us into the main current of the river and the camp disappears from view. It’s too late to go back and we focus intently on the rapids ahead. My heart rate increases as the thunderous sound of water gets closer and closer. I let out a scream as we are thrown into the grade four rapid, anxiously trying to stay balanced as the raft accelerates. My adrenalin pumps and we are thrown around, but it’s not long until the raft emerges into a calmer section.

We continued, riding over some smaller and less-intimidating rapids until our guide said “okay, everybody ready?” A large collection of storm debris has divided the upcoming rapid and the right hand side looks extremely dangerous. “Lean left! Left, left, left!” he shouts as we desperately try to avoid being swept into the menacing waters. People start to panic until the survival instinct takes over and we haul ourselves towards the easier looking section. Miraculously, we somehow make it and our panic turns to laughter as we exit the section with relief and cheers.

After a deserved lunch break when we relax and swap stories, we proceed onto the toughest section of our journey. The next rapid is a grade five, the hardest, and it looks more like a waterfall. We approach it with trepidation, knowing that there is no way back and only one way through it. As we hurl over the top, I catch a glimpse of the safety team on the bank and I sense that we may not make this one unscathed.

The raft hits the bottom and immediately flips over, tossing everyone into the water. Panic reigns once again as I’m pushed underwater by the power of the rapids. I desperately try to remember the safety advice I was given earlier in the day. Fighting it is forlorn and I wait for what seems like an eternity until I’m washed out farther downstream and able to swim to the safety of the bank.

We are able to regroup and rescue the rafts, safe in the knowledge that we survived the mighty Mae Tang River. A celebratory photograph is all that is left of my most exciting day in Thailand.

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